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What the heck is Bluesign?

When you’re shopping for outdoor gear, most of us look at cool features you can see – taped seams, cleverly placed pockets, reflective materials. But what about the stuff you don’t see? The vats of swirling dyes or the person mixing chemicals to make your gear waterproof?

That’s where Bluesign comes in.

Bluesign is kind of like a team of science detectives with a serious interest in safety. They’re experts that investigate the chemistry that goes into manufacturing fabrics, from the molecular level (seriously) all the way to the stuff flowing out of the pipes at a fabric mill.

It’s nerdy, it’s complicated, and we love it. If you’re the type of person who cares about how your clothes and gear are made, we think you’ll dig it too.

Wait – why are there chemicals in outdoor gear?

If you’re looking to only wear products that aren’t made with chemicals, you’ll likely be naked. Fact is, even the most natural fabrics require chemistry. Dyes, water repellents, stain release agents – it’s all chemistry. Most of us don’t think about it since we don’t see it.

What’s extra surprising that only a tiny portion of chemistry used to make a material – about 10% – ends up in the final material. The majority is used in processes along the way, like anti-foaming agents to help make sure dyes aren’t patchy. It can end up harming the environment (emissions, waste materials or waste water) or hurting people who are working with it (carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, harsh reproductive toxins) if it’s not managed responsibly.

How does Bluesign help?

When you choose products made with bluesign® approved fabrics, you can feel confident that they were made in the safest possible way for the planet, workers and you. MEC Label has been working with Bluesign since 2005, and we were the first Canadian retailer to become a bluesign® system partner.

Colourful dyes in clear plastic vials

Small vials of dyes that get mixed to colour fabrics at Thai Eastern Industry, a supplier to MEC since 2015, and a bluesign system partner.

Okay, but what does Bluesign actually do?

Bluesign helps stop problems before they start. They work with brands (like MEC Label), fabric mills and chemical suppliers in the supply chain. The goal is to create and use the safest and most sustainable materials possible.

Good chemistry means that:

  • Toxins aren’t released into air, water or on land
  • People aren’t harmed by chemicals they’re handling
  • There’s a lower environmental impact, since less water, energy and actual chemicals need to be used

You want to know the products you buy are free from toxic substances, and bluesign approved materials are indeed safe. But many people are surprised to learn that some of Bluesign’s biggest impacts aren’t about consumers – they’re about workers and the environment. The potential exposure to really bad stuff is so much greater to people who handle the fabrics and where they live than anything the average Canadian consumer would ever experience.

Properly managed chemistry in the supply chain protects places and people everywhere.

Why is it so hard to keep bad stuff out?

Short answer: supply chains are complicated:

Sample supply chain network to show how complicated things can get. Adapted from the Outdoor Industry Association Textile & Textile Chemistry Supply Network diagram.

This diagram is what keeps social and environmental responsibility teams up at night. When you’re a brand trying to make a t-shirt or backpack, it’s often impossible to understand all the players involved in making your finished product.

MEC works with Bluesign to help us make more responsible choices when we’re sourcing fabrics. If a factory we want to work with isn’t part of the bluesign system, we make the introduction so Bluesign can jump into science investigation mode. They dig into what chemistry is used, how chemical mixtures are formulated, and how it’s all being handled.

The reality is that most brands don’t know what’s in their supply chain. MEC has a goal of using 100% bluesign approved materials, and 88% of the materials we use for apparel and sleeping bags are already bluesign approved. We’re also working at understanding more of the players in our own supply chain. We currently know tier one factories and subcontractors (e.g., creating finished products), and tier two material partners (e.g., turning raw materials into fabric), and share our supplier list publicly.

Person holding a large piece of fabric that's coming out of a machine and into a large tub

Fabrics being washed at Thai Eastern Industry, a bluesign system partner MEC works with to create our All Day Essentials line of clothing.

Who are these science experts?

The people at Bluesign are a technical bunch. Many are chemical engineers or have PhDs in chemistry to deeply know chemicals and be able to audit chemical facilities. One group even specializes in something called homologation, which is a fancy way of saying chemical assessments and ratings. Bluesign Technologies AG is based in St. Gallen, Switzerland, and has team members all over the world.

What can MEC members do about all this?

Good news: your choices have an impact. We recognize that no individual, organization or brand is perfect (including MEC – we’re on a sustainability journey where the end goal is always evolving), but individual actions are a great place to start. Some ideas from our sustainability team:

  • Buy less: Purchase fewer things, go secondhand, rent, borrow, and use what you have more.
  • Look for quality: When you do buy new, look for well-made stuff that’s built to last.
  • Be curious: Who made your gear? If a brand is claiming something, who’s verifying those claims, and what numbers back it up?
  • Think brands over items: Look for brands that have a solid track record in sustainability (like being involved with Bluesign, Sustainable Apparel Coalition, Fair Trade and more) instead of a shiny new “green” product that was created without other aspects in mind.
Small group of people walking outside a factory
MEC social and environmental team

Respect for people, respect for the planet. We go deep behind the scenes to make sure the gear you find at MEC is made responsibly.